Chevrolet W-Engines - Rare V-8 Performance History, Part 2

Enter The W-Engine: 1958-1961

Doug Marion May 1, 2008 0 Comment(s)
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This man sold more '59 and '60 Chevrolets than anyone else we know. Meet NASCAR legend Junior Johnson. He won the '59 NASCAR championship with a 348. Lore has it that Junior's car was up to 8 mph slower, but as a result, he learned he could increase his speed by drafting the faster cars. Many then broke, leaving only him to collect the trophy. He is a '80s Super Chevy Hall Of Fame inductee, along with Vince Piggins, Zora Arkus-Duntov, Hayden Proffitt, Bill Jenkins, John Loper, Bill Heilscher, and Dick Moroso.

Chevrolet's Engineering Department knew this was coming, so after a few months in the dyno lab, they countered with a brand-new "Police Cruiser" 348. It cost about $150 extra. It looked like a 280hp 348 (Tri-power induction), but it had a solid lifter high-performance camshaft (PN 3755946) and an 11.0:1 compression ratio. Horsepower was rated at 315 at 5,600 rpm. Its torque output rating was 356 at 3,600 rpm. With good numerical gearing and Positraction, acceleration was excellent. It took the extra torque and horsepower of the 315hp 348 to pull the extra weight of the engine and chassis. A good driver could do 0-60 in 7.2 seconds and run the quarter-mile in 15.0-15.2 seconds at 96-99 mph.

Records dictate that 1958 was an off-year saleswise for most manufacturers. Chevrolet's '58 car sales were 1,291,050. Of these, 784,667 were V-8-powered. That's 60 percent. Actual RPO engine sales were said to be lost in a fire decades ago. We estimated total 348 engine production at 30,000 with the 315-horsepower version at 1,000. Very few remain today.

Overall '59 sales increased 264,000 to come within 34,000 of record '57 totals. The '59 Chevrolet was a total redesign from 1958. It was the largest ever Chevrolet car built to date, and most people actually liked it. Those who did not called it the ugliest car ever built. Nonsense. Its styling was certainly controversial, but most thought it was right on the money for the times. After all, Chief Stylist Harley Earl loved fins. So did most of America. The '59 Chevrolet has forever been known as the "Bat Wing" car due to its rear fender and taillight configuration. Where I grew up in northern Illinois, there were about 15 known hot '59 Chevys who raced each other for bragging rights. Because their cars were their daily transportation, few ever went to the drags for fear of breaking. But many others did, and no one ever broke anything.

For model year 1959, seven 348 engines were offered. We do not recall any replacing another. Dealers heatedly dictated that Chevrolet get back into the performance arena. As just mentioned, Chevrolet engineers delivered, big time. All the new 348s had a compression ratio between 11.0:1-11.25:1. All had a solid lifter performance camshaft. The four-barrel engines produced 300, 305, and 320 horsepower. Then in February 1960, an even more powerful 335hp Tri-power 348 was introduced. It was similar to the 315hp Tri-power engine but had 11.25:1 compression and a camshaft with more duration and valve lift. We estimate total 348 production at 40,000. Solid lifter versions: 8,000. Few remain today.

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Corvettes were always fairly low production. A close friend once had a Panama yellow '58 like this one. This color was second in rarity (455), while Inca silver was first (193) out of 9,168 Corvettes sold. As for engines, the 270 hp had 978 sales, 245 hp was 2,436, 250hp F.I. was 504, and the 290hp F.I. was 1,007. A total of 4,243 had the base 230hp 283.

A fuel-injected 283 was also offered, but very few were sold; some estimate no more than 30. The only original car we know of was the late Johnny Loper's black Biscayne. The Super Chevy Hall of Famer installed tubular headers and drag raced it in the B/Gas class in Phoenix.

The 348's horsepower ratings were really on a roll. Chevy's high-performance truck engine was taking no prisoners. The great thing about the 1958-up Chevy cars was the coil-spring rear suspension. Rear wheelhop on launch was nil. The four-speed transmission shifted like a hot knife cutting through butter. The weak link on the 348 was its tiny exhaust manifolds. The cheapest '60 Chevy car base price was a whopping $4 (pun intended) more than the 1959. The hottest 348, RPO 593, was a scalding 350hp monster. It cost about $350 extra. Yes, the hottest 348 was now producing more than one horsepower per cubic inch, just like the hottest fuel-injected 283. We estimate total 348 production at 50,000. Solid lifter versions: 15,000. Few remain today.


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